The Day After Tomorrow

Roland Emmerich’s films have depicted America being attacked, at various times, by aliens, Godzilla and the British. Now comes a force even more powerful, even more potentially deadly, with even greater possibilities for being really stupid: the weather.

“The Day After Tomorrow” is a movie about what happens when global warming turns out to be real, screws up the North Atlantic current, and brings the Northern Hemisphere into a new ice age, all in a matter of weeks. This isn’t possible, of course, and I don’t think Emmerich even wants us to buy it. He just wants us to swallow the basic premise, sit back, and enjoy the sights and sounds of all we know and love being destroyed.

I did not like Emmerich’s “The Patriot” or “Godzilla,” though I do find myself in the critical minority for having enjoyed “Independence Day.” “The Day After Tomorrow,” which Emmerich again wrote and directed, is cut from the same cloth as “Independence Day,” but with more plot holes, less excitement, and fewer jokes. In addition, I doubt there is a single disaster-movie cliche that Emmerich does not employ, right down the last noble character who dies so that others may live. Emmerich must have had a list in front of him; there’s no way you could make a movie with this much recycled material just from memory.

Dennis Quaid plays Jack Hall, the obsessive scientist whom no one listens to. He was in Antarctica with his two researcher buddies (Dash Mihok and Jay O. Sanders) not long ago when a Rhode Island-size chunk of it broke off and floated away. This means the global temperature is rising, which is not good. The world leaders he tells, however, including the American vice president, are unimpressed. (Maybe if he’d told them the chunk was the size of Delaware. Rhode Island just sounds so small.)

Fellow researcher Terry Rapson (Ian Holm), who works at a Scottish weather station, believes Jack, and is equally fearful of what the future may bring. Neither man thought it would happen so soon, though: Within days, temperatures in the North Atlantic are rising dramatically, and most of the world begins to experience crazy weather. Tokyo is pelted with a rain of huge ice chunks. Los Angeles is wiped out by tornadoes. Other, less important cities are probably destroyed, too, but the movie doesn’t have time to show us, because we have to get to New York to see what happens there.

What happens there is, the ocean rises and Manhattan is flooded. (That most-abused symbol of America, the Statue of Liberty, is this time shown neck-deep in Atlantic water.) The flooding is bad news for Jack and his wife, a nurse named Lucy (Sela Ward), who of course tends to children with cancer at the local hospital. Jack and Lucy have a teenage son named Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal) who is currently in the aforementioned Manhattan on a school trip. It’s pouring down rain, the streets are flooding, the rain is turning to snow, and soon Fifth Avenue is solid ice about 20 feet deep. And just when tourism in the Big Apple was starting to pick up again! Mother Nature is the worst terrorist of all, no?

Sam, his objet d’amour Laura (Emmy Rossum), and various New York types (homeless man, business man, tourists, etc.) have fled to the safety of the public library. Via telephone, Jack tells Sam not to go outside because of what is to come: It will soon become SO COLD, SO FAST that people will freeze to death INSTANTLY! Meanwhile, Jack tries to get from Washington D.C. to New York to rescue his son, and Lucy stays at the hospital to hug cancer kids.

The general idea of this film presents no problem for me in terms of logic or believability. They say the world’s gonna go ice age on us, fine. I’ll buy that. It’s the little things that are absurd, and that reduce the film from awe-inspiring disaster epic to silly special-effects showcase.

For example, there are the people at the library who realize they must start fires in order to keep warm. So what do they burn? The books. They even debate which books ought to be burned last, and which are worthless enough to go now. What they DON’T burn are any of the library’s hundreds and hundreds of wooden chairs and tables. Those, apparently, must be preserved for future generations.

I also like how Sam leads a small team to a Russian freighter that drifted down Fifth Avenue when the city flooded and has now become moored in the ice. (Luckily, Fifth Avenue is EXACTLY WIDE ENOUGH for a freighter to float down it. The ship doesn’t even scrape any buildings on the sides.) They go because they figure the ship will have food and first aid supplies. While on board, not only do they have to hurry up before The Cold arrives, but they are also chased by wolves. Yes, wolves. I figure Emmerich sat there with his co-writer (Jeffrey Nachmanoff, giving credit where it’s due) and said, “There needs to be danger on the ship. What can we have chase them? Snakes? Zombies? Ghosts? No … wolves!” Well, sure. Why not wolves?

And then there is the moment when The Cold arrives and everyone dashes for safety, trying to outrun it, trying to move faster than the speed of cold. Of course this is a variation on the action-movie theme of heroes outrunning fireballs. A bit less exciting, really. At least fire is a tangible, physical thing. Fleeing from “cold” is a bit obscure, even if it is represented by walls and ceilings crackling over with frost.

It’s summer blockbuster time, which means stuff needs to get blowed up, and blowed up BIG. On that count, Emmerich delivers as reliably as ever. The scenes of New York and L.A. being wiped out are suitably impressive. But there’s a mechanical feel to it, like Emmerich doesn’t have his heart in it. There is little wit or imagination to the film, and certainly no spark in any of the characters. It’s all just a rote recital of the disaster-flick images we’ve been through so many times before. If the world’s going to end, it ought to end more creatively than this.

C (2 hrs., 2 min.; PG-13, some mild profanity, a lot of impersonal violence and mayhem.)